It’s always funny when I get to the part about supporting school reform. As an organizer working with parents who have struggled like I have there are a lot of opportunities to work with people fighting for criminal justice, economic justice, and human rights. We all agree on those issues, but talking about education is different.
From what I can tell most of my activist friends agree with me about the sorry state of education for students of color and low income students. Many agree that we need solutions to systemic problems. We all know we have to use the power of organizing and mobilizing to get people who are affected by discrimination to be involved at decision making tables.
But, no matter how much work we do together we always get to the point where someone says “I like her, but I don’t know about SFER.”
SFER is the acronym for Students For Education Reform, the organization I work for. Have you heard about us? What did you hear?
I bet it’s wrong, but I don’t blame you.
There are so many hit pieces written about SFER saying it’s an “astroturf” group carrying water for the 1% that I can’t keep count. That’s how politics work. People who want to defend the system more than kids would rather generate suspicion about reform than admit their systems need reforming.
By now I’m used to being the only one in activist circles who will tell the truth about our schools. Many of them are more apt to defend school staff because they have organizational ties to groups that serve the interests of teachers rather than students. Kids don’t have a union. Neither do parents (especially black parents).
In St. Paul where I live, kids are treated like criminals. Teachers (even some of the black ones) blame students. They fight against campaigns to reduce suspensions and some even tell the media our kids are “thugs.” They attack our superintendent for having alleged ties to Black Lives Matter. Over the last year they ran a slate of school board candidates who won and promptly ousted the superintendent because they didn’t like her racial equity plan. It was a coalition of well-to-do white parents and the teachers’ union, working together to stop the district from doing equity work.
One of the union’s supporters likened the superintendent to Pinochet. She immigrated to America from Chile, learned English, and became a veteran educator with over 20 years service.
If you don’t think that needs reform then there’s something wrong with you. But, many of my activist friends were silent through all of it.
When I joined SFER I was in a teacher education program and also dealing with school issues in my own home. I was beyond frustrated with the St. Paul Public Schools because it seemed they were committed to railroading my daughter into the criminal justice system and making her a statistic. I was determined not to let that happen.
It was a lonely time, but I met two black women (one who was a non-traditional college student like me, and also a parent) who were organizing in my community to fight the same issues I had with the SPPS. They had formed an SFER chapter at my college and asked me to join them.
I did some research, which, to be perfectly honest, made me skeptical. There were all these people saying SFER was part of a white funded “corporate take-over public education.” As a graduate of public schools I wasn’t going to join an organization that was trying to ruin public schools. I mean, what are we poor black folks supposed to do about education if we don’t have public schools?
About that joining thing, I said no.
But it hit me that the women I knew from our SFER chapter weren’t white or corporate. They were like me. Why had they joined? What were they up too? It was confusing.
So I joined. Early in the process they asked what was my story? I said, huh? You want me to tell you what? My story? Can you handle the truth, because it’s a lot.
I told them everything I had been through with the schools and they asked “what are you going to do about it?” That was the right question.
From there we were off to the races. We began organizing ourselves and others to confront the school district and the State of Minnesota. Surprisingly, no rich white people ever fell out of the sky to demand we join their fight to end the public schools. Imagine that.
When my fellow SFER members graduated from college one was hired on to organize chapters across the state of Minnesota. Under her leadership we have started groups at state universities and community colleges, always focusing on students who have a story to tell that drives them to organize. We’ve even become the first SFER state in the country to organize parents and non-traditional college students who are like us.
I assure you, throughout my time as a member and an organizer, I’ve yet to see these rich white people who supposedly tell us what to do. SFER Minnesota, like a lot of other chapters, is primarily people of color.
So, let me say this, I am SFER, and my views are SFER, so if you agree with me, then agree with SFER.
When my activist friends like to say, “she might be right, but I don’t know about SFER.” Its’s obvious you don’t know as much as they think. Maybe they should ask me my story.
Real activists would.
Khulia Pringle is a mother, teacher, and parent organizer in St. Paul, Minnesota